A wave of power cuts have underlined the problems besetting India’s economy
“India is shining,” is the slogan that advertises the would-be superpower to the world.
But as electricity blackouts swept the north and east of the country last week, the glow of this economic dynamo seemed decidedly dim.
Miners were trapped underground as lifts failed. Hospitals were plunged into darkness. Trains and metros were stranded on the tracks.
Traffic was gridlocked as the lights went out. As temperatures soared, there was no power to run air conditioning.
“It was so hot and we could not sleep,” said Renuka Motihar, a resident of the capital New Delhi’s posh Karol Bagh district. “The air conditioner didn’t work, the computer didn’t work and the water pump didn’t work. We are in the 21st century and this happens.”
Up to 700 million people were affected. And more blackouts are likely as rising demand for electricity puts increasing pressure on an ageing infrastructure.
Power failures of this scale are just one of many signs that India’s once booming economy is now beset by problems. But it is the poor, not the middle classes or the elite, that are paying the price.
Workers were sent home from offices and factories with no power—if they could get to work in the first place with no public transport.
Half of India’s population is dependent on farming, and annual monsoon rains are vital. But so far the rains have failed and crops are withering in many parts of India.
In a desperate bid to save their harvests, some farmers are spending 1,000 rupees (£11.50) a day on diesel to pump water into their fields. Three quarters of the Indian population lives on less than 20 rupees a day.
But they are unable to pump enough. And besides, many farmers are too poor to buy fuel. Some are simply abandoning their land, devastating vital cash crops.
Food prices are rising by more than 10 percent a year. Poor harvests will add to the pressure on those in the cities who also struggle to make ends meet.
Meanwhile hawks are demanding the state cut its deficit by reducing food and fuel subsidies. They want further liberalisation of the economy through the privatisation of public assets, including electricity.
Gujarat’s hard right chief minister Narendra Modi has already set up a “parallel” electricity grid. Wealthy consumers can buy electricity that is more expensive but more reliable. Farmers who may cause shortages by running electric water pumps need not apply.
But as the rich rush to join the new parallel universe, there are signs that workers are prepared drag them back down to earth.
Bosses at the Maruti Suzuki car plant near Delhi last year refused to recognise the workers’ independent trade union. They sent hired thugs to break up meetings and attack activists. When this failed they announced a lock-out and their intention to move production to Gujarat.
But the workers, who produce a car every 38 seconds, refused to yield. The factory was burnt down during fighting with police and company gangs last month. A senior manager who stayed inside the plant was among those burnt alive.
Police have since arrested the union leaders, whom they accuse of being Maoists, and launched a crackdown across the Gurgaon district. Meetings of more than a dozen are banned.
But repression of this kind rarely holds. And if the spirit of Maruti workers spreads to others in this industrial belt, the rich may find themselves dealing with a power surge of a different kind.